A New & Unsettling Force

The Moral Question

The Moral Question

By Douglas T. Ncebere

The declaration of independence of the United States of America, which is also enshrined in the constitution of the land, regards all inhabitants of this nation as “the people.” The words that declare all people as equal were restated by Frederick Douglass in his speech at Rochester, NY on July 5th 1852, and again by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Mountaintop Speech of 1967. Douglass and MLK remind us that the constitution indeed represents all the people, except that it is not followed to the letter. MLK’s dissatisfaction with the unmet purpose of the constitution is summed up in these words: “But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”

These words capture the imagination of Thursday, the 24th of January, 2013, in our trip to Christiana and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There exists the tension over the interpretation of this legal document, an interpretation which goes hand in hand with the choices that are made, or the predicaments to be faced. This tension is evident in the way two characters, Edward Gorsuch, a slave-owner in Christiana, PA, and William Parker, a brave fighter against slavery, understood the subject of slavery and morality over this matter. Both the slave-owner and the anti-slavery crusader saw God’s approval in their various actions. This connects well with “The Slavery Question” in which “different Americans saw slavery in different ways—as mortal sin or God’s will or a lifelong sentence to labor and oppression. American’s differing beliefs about slavery were a source of enduring bitter conflict” (words found in the Gettysburg Museum). However, Douglass and King were able to assert, with much clarity, that slavery and poverty are evils that the society needed to fight against.

The recurring issue of slavery and poverty where human beings were and are treated as property did arise in Christiana, PA, especially in our meetings in the Unitarian and King of Kings Churches. The time of speaking about the vulnerabilities suffered exposed utter brokenness of the society we live in: the fear to speak about the condition of poverty in all its forms. This raises the question of the place for human dignity in our contemporary situation. We live at a time when human beings view others not as people but as bodies to be utilized in industries, shopping malls, and other sectors of the economy for maximum profit production. The question of a just wage, the immigration status and the documentation that goes with it, unemployment, health insurance, housing, etc, emerged. Any system that does not treat all people equally and with the dignity they require can never claim to have done justice in its entirety. Rather, it is emblematic of the structures of injustice that need transformation. The main question is why hide under the cover of unfair systems and use the same to benefit from others and thus render them poor and powerless? For me this is the moral question of our time that must be dealt with.

Quality Education & Poverty

Matt Hoffman—Blog Post:

The Poverty Initiative group gathers together at the Christiana Riot of 1851 site.

Amidst the growing national discussion surrounding public education, one truth has become apparent —now, more than ever – and it is simply that education is intricately tied to poverty.  As former teacher, I have seen how education inequality is both a product and a contributing factor to the limited options and continued marginalization of poor communities.  While education has not been an explicit focus of our immersion trip to Pennsylvania/New York, I have been continually thinking of ways to connect larger economic and political systems of poverty with education.  To me, education is both an individual and a collective answer to the poverty plaguing the United States.

 

The right to a quality education is a fundamental right given to all citizens (in my opinion, this should read “all people”) of the United States.  Long attached to “the American Dream,” education is central to idea that people are able to overcome hardships. This narrative is deceiving for many reasons, the least of which is that students in low-income communities often do not have access to the same quality education as their higher-income peers.  Students in such communities face a multitude of problems and struggles, compounded by a lack of access to quality education.  When the location you were born or the income of your family or your status as an immigrant determines your educational opportunities, there is a huge human rights crisis on our hands.

 

From my time with the Poverty Initiative, I have had the opportunity to interact with two organizations that are tackling education in their own way: the Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Binghamton, NY and Teacher Action Group in Philadelphia. BOCES, a group charged with managing the school lunch and breakfast program from 15+ school districts in the Binghamton area collaborated with other organizations to meet student need. Working with area partners, BOCES was able to extend food programs to summer and long weekends. Along the lines of education, BOCES is working to educate parents, students, and family members on the importance of balanced eating and proper nutrition. As many teachers can attest, it is incredibly difficult to learn on an empty stomach and health foods are rarely inexpensive.  The work of BOCES provides options and education to those constrained by poverty.

 

The other organization that we heard from that is working within the education sector was the Teacher Action Group in Philadelphia, PA.  This group is made up of current teachers, parents, students, and community groups in Philadelphia and is organized around the idea of strengthening their influence regarding school decisions. In addition to curriculum and learning groups, TAG is advocating against the recent announcement of school closures within the city.  Advocating on the best interest of students and the community is crucial, and it demonstrates the interconnectedness of poverty and education.  Indeed, the large majority of students impacted by the policies of the public schools in Philadelphia are considered to be low-income and impoverished.

New York’s Hunger Problem

A truck arrives at the same time our group does to deliver food from the Southern Tier Food Bank to the Catholic Charities Food Pantry in Binghamton, NY. The Food Bank’s network includes over 160 hunger-relief agencies in the six southern-most counties in New York state. In 2011, 16.1% of Americans were food insecure, meaning that they did not have adequate access to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life. Put another way, 1 in every 6 Americans is hungry.

William Parker: “Bold as a Lion”

This plaque commemorating William Parker, an escaped slave, stands next to the Christiana Underground Railroad Center at Historic Zercher’s Hotel in Christiana, PA. There we heard the story of Parker and the many with him who confronted Maryland slave owner Edward Gorsuch and his posse of slave catchers empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This armed confrontation would become known as the Christiana Riot of 1851, and was one of the many events that sparked a national debate about slavery leading up to the Civil War.

Humble Beginnings (Wilkes-Barre, again)

by Shay O’Reilly

First Presbyterian Church in Wilkes-Barre, our “home base” for the first part of this week — and the meeting location for Put People First PA.

“It’s up to us to recognize that we need a movement of people in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, nationwide, and globally to deal with this,” Frank Sindaco told us Sunday. “We don’t have the resources that RAND corporation or the Brookings Institute have, we only have each other. That means we have to be even smarter, clearer, more committed, and we have to insure that we’re building something for ourselves that can provide a counterbalance to the system that is imbalanced and is getting moreso.”

The title of this blog, “A New and Unsettling Force,” comes from remarks by Martin Luther King Jr. in which he describes an organization of poor people across lines of both color and geography. In Pennsylvania the lines are strict between black and white, city and country. This separation “is good news for the people who make policy,” Put People First PA’s Nijmie Dzurinko said Monday at a meeting to honor King’s legacy through building the movement for which he sacrificed his life.

The meeting, held at First Presbyterian in Wilkes-Barre, drew about 20 community members, young and old, black and white. It was a recruitment event and a training event for Put People First PA, although the Poverty Initiative also presented a brief background on King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Gwen of Union Theological Seminary leads a prayer before the meeting begins.

A survey facilitated by PPFPA’s Mitch revealed that the vast majority of people in attendance — including people on our trip — fought to make enough money to scrape by, find healthcare or dental care, and feed their families. Only two of the attendees were unconcerned about having their basic needs met; even these two had loved ones battling poverty.

Here is a collection of quotes from Wilkes-Barre’s struggling:

  • “We have a right to vote but we put people in office who say they’re with us though they aren’t really with us… it makes one mad at politicians because they’re not doing anything to help poor people, low-income people.”
  • “They made us think like we were guilty of a crime, that it’s our fault for being poor… they’ve destroyed our belief system. It’s up to us to restore our belief system, and then to take action.”
  • “It seems like the only way to have a voice is to have a lobbyist or a tragedy.”

Without a lobbyist or a tragedy (at least one more gripping than the gradual erosion of people’s lives for the sake of profit), what can people do in the face of budget cuts and increasing austerity measures?

Nijmie, Frank, and Mitch find inspiration in the Vermont Workers’ Center, which launched a successful state-wide campaign to guarantee universal healthcare. By creating a power base across the state, regardless of racial and geographic prejudice, Put People First PA aims to “expand the realm of the possible” in state politics and force an end to the systems that keep people poor. Organizers are conscious of the implications of following the Vermont model: Igniting a state-by-state fight to reclaim government for the suffering people.

At the Poverty Initiative we like to point out that the elites of society are smart and — as the old labor line went — organized as a class. Poverty Scholars Program leader Willie Baptist is fond of saying that “never in history has a dumb force defeated a smart force.” In order to end the poverty that exists as part of a deliberately created economic order, the disenfranchised must organize and work smart.

“The struggle for rights has always been a struggle for power,” Put People First PA told the gathering yesterday. The struggle for economic and human rights, for the means by which people can survive and thrive, will necessarily put the poor in conflict with existing power structures. The struggle to redefine the future of Wilkes-Barre and all the other post-industrial cities in the United States means necessarily taking power from development groups and large corporations, and placing it back with the people. As with all people power, it begins humbly: with the forging of human connections that overcome artificial barriers.

Frank Sindaco presents Put People First PA’s model for leadership development.

 

“We have the solutions,” Nijmie said. “We already know the answers. All we need is a space to say them.”